After militants massacred 305 people at a packed mosque on Friday in a stunning assault on a sacred place, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi responded as he knows best. El-Sissi went on television vowing to “take revenge” and strike back with an “iron fist”. Moments later, Egyptian warplanes swooped over the vast deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, dropping bombs that pulverised vehicles used in the assault. Soldiers fanned out across the area.
But that furious retaliation, which follows years of battle in Sinai against a vicious Islamic State affiliate that downed a Russian passenger jet in 2015 and has regularly attacked Egyptian security forces there, revived the most troubling question about el-Sissi’s strategy in the desert peninsula: Why is it failing?
One of the most striking aspects of the carnage that unfolded on Friday was how easy it was for the militants to carry it out. In a statement , Egypt's prosecutor general, Nabil Sadek, described the grisly scene in forensic detail.
Between 25 and 30 gunmen, travelling in five vehicles and carrying an Islamic State flag, surrounded a Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abd, a dusty town on a road that arcs across the sandy plain of North Sinai. After an explosion, they positioned themselves outside the main entrance of the mosque and its 12 windows, spraying the worshippers with gunfire. Seven parked cars were set ablaze to prevent victims from escaping. Among the dead were 27 children.
For Sinai residents, the attack deepened an abiding sense of dread about life in a part of Egypt where many feel trapped between barbarous militants and a heartless military. At a hospital in nearby Ismailia, survivors recounted how they leapt through windows as militants raked them with gunfire, or of watching their friends and relatives die.
"If even mosques are being targeted, then where are we safe?" said Mohamed Abdel Salam (22). For Sinai experts, the assault sharpened scrutiny of Egypt's counterinsurgency tactics against a dogged Islamic insurgency that has surged in strength since 2013, after el-Sissi came to power in a military takeover. They paint a picture of a stubbornly outmoded approach that is unsuited to the fight, and that perpetuates the mistakes of successive Egyptian leaders. For decades, Egypt has seen Sinai through a military prism, taking an aggressive approach to an alienated local population. The military has engaged in summary executions and the destruction of whole villages, while offering little to solve the region's deep social and economic problems, including chronic unemployment, illiteracy and poor access to healthcare.
"The Egyptians have failed to acknowledge that Isis is not just a terrorism threat," said Andrew Miller, a former Egypt specialist at the National Security Council, now at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. "Killing terrorists is not sufficient. They need to deprive Isis of local support, which is rooted in Cairo's historical neglect of the Sinai."
But that support has been eroded by multiple accounts of torture and extrajudicial executions by the military, as well as indiscriminate military tactics that often inflict civilian casualties and sow widespread resentment. “The military has never cared for civilian losses,” said Mohannad Sabry, author of a book on Sinai. “The excessive and reckless use of force has killed entire families. We’ve seen airstrikes blow people up in their homes. We’ve seen villages razed off the face of the earth. That tells you something about how they see Sinai society.”
Cynicism about the central government was evident outside the Ismailia hospital, where an elderly Bedouin woman in black sat on the muddy lawn, huddled under a blanket for warmth. She refused to give her name, citing fear of reprisals from either the military or the so-called Islamic State. “If either side sees our names, they will kill us. They are as bad as each other,” she said.
“The military will keep jailing and killing local young people. The terrorists who hate us and the Christians will keep using it as an excuse to kill us,” she added. “There is no point in talking about anything.”
– New York Times